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The Burning Girls


The Burning Girls

During the time of Queen Mary’s purge of Protestants, the small English village of Chapel Croft in Sussex saw eight of their villagers burned at the stake, two of whom were young girls. These horrific deaths are commemorated regularly through the distribution and placement of small twig dolls, which have come to be known as the Burning Girls. The chapel and accompanying graveyard have allegedly been haunted by their ghosts. If one of them appears to you, that means you are in trouble and bad things shall befall you.

This is the backstory of C. J. Tudor’s latest work of psychological suspense, THE BURNING GIRLS. Just when you think you have a handle on what is happening, Tudor will throw you a series of curveballs to rock you off your foundation and out of your sensibilities.

In May 1990, two teenagers, Merry Lane and Joy Harris, went missing and were never seen again. Their resemblance to the Burning Girls, at least in age, is more than mere coincidence. The difference is that the residents of Chapel Croft who are descendants of the eight pour souls killed by Queen Mary wear that fact as a badge of personal pride. Not so with the relatives of Merry and Joy. In fact, Joy’s mother and brother literally disappeared shortly after she went missing and were never heard from again. Chapel Croft is a troubled place and small enough at a mere 500 residents to have become completely “institutionalized” with their special brand of insanity.

"There are enough plot twists, including one that most readers will not see coming, to keep you on your toes right through to the unexpected and highly satisfying finale of this consistently creepy psychological thriller."

A new chaplain is taking over the small church in Chapel Croft, Reverend Jack Brooks, a single parent with a teenager named Flo. It took me a few chapters with all the gender-neutral referencing surrounding reverends to recognize that Jack Brooks is a woman. Her daughter is quite goth and resembles actress Winona Ryder circa Beetlejuice. Jack did her research on Chapel Croft and understands the village’s infamous history. When the two of them notice the Burning Girl twig figures laying everywhere, Flo indicates that they remind her of the film The Blair Witch Project (which is exactly what I was thinking when Tudor first mentioned them).

Jack is not aware that the prior chaplain, Reverend Fletcher, had hung himself. It was alleged that he believed the town to be evil and at one point had attempted an exorcism. Jack and Flo were already unhappy about having to leave Nottingham, so this new information has made their move to Chapel Croft that much less ingratiating. As Jack begins to dig deeper, she learns that Reverend Fletcher was obsessed with Merry and Joy, and was convinced that all the village’s issues could be traced back to them. Prior to his suicide, he even tried to burn down the chapel.

Meanwhile, Flo is having her own issues. She befriends a creepy young man, Wrigley, who is the town cipher and is often bullied at school. The most likely offenders seem to be Rosie Harper and her cousin, Tom. The Harpers are one of the few wealthy families in town and proud descendants of the eight martyrs. Ironically, the term “martyr” literally means “witness.” If that is the case, just what were these people witnessing? Flo is an amateur photographer, and Wrigley is more than happy to show her the sights around town and share local folklore that might answer some of these questions while doing so. Their first target is the abandoned house that ends up being the former home of one of the two missing girls.

Flo and Wrigley have more than a few run-ins with Rosie and Tom. Rosie even tries to warn Flo away from Wrigley by sharing a story about his being kicked out of another high school because he attempted to burn it down with a young female student still inside. Flo is shrewd enough to know not to believe everything the townspeople are feeding her.

As she continues to make her way through the town gathering information, two rather unsettling incidents occur. The first is the uncovering of a hidden tomb by the chapel that houses not only the bones of the eight martyrs, but also a more recent set of bones that could be a former reverend who went missing. As Flo is literally digging through this mess, she learns from her bishop that the reverend who replaced her at her old parish in Nottingham has been brutally murdered by an unknown assailant. Could this attack have been intended for Jack? If so, might it have been tied to the murder of her own husband years earlier? The answers to these questions are quite unsettling to Jack, especially once it is revealed that she knows the identity of his killer and has kept it to herself.

There are enough plot twists, including one that most readers will not see coming, to keep you on your toes right through to the unexpected and highly satisfying finale of this consistently creepy psychological thriller.

Reviewed by Ray Palen on February 12, 2021

The Burning Girls
by C. J. Tudor